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Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne


No matter how Alexander Payne’s in-progress film Downsizing is received when released next year, it will be remembered as his first foray into special effects, science fiction, big budget filmmaking and sprawling production extending across three nations. But the most important development it marks is the rejoining of Payne and his longtime screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, whose contributions to the film’s they’ve collaborated on often get overlooked even though he’s shared an Oscar with Payne and has been nominated for others with him. In truth, Payne and Taylor never broke with each other. Payne did make both The Descendants and Nebraska without Taylor’s writing contribution, but following their last collaboration, Sideways, and during much of the period when Payne was producing other people’s films and then mounting and making the two films he directed following Sideways, these creative partners were busily at work on the Downsizing screenplay. It’s been awhile since I last interviewed Taylor. I am sharing the resulting 2005 story here, It is included in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of the book releases Sept. 1.

As my story makes clear, Payne and Taylor go farther back then Citizen Ruth, the first feature they wrote together and the first feature that Payne directed. Their bond goes all the way back to college and to scuffling along to try to break into features. After Citizen Ruth, they really made waves with their scripts for Election and About Schmidt. And then Sideways confirmed them as perhaps Hollywood’s top screenwriting tandem. They also collaborated on for-hire rewrite jobs on scripts that others directed.

I will soon be doing a new interview with Taylor for my ongoing reporting about Payne and his work. Though Taylor is not a Nebraskan, his important collaboration with Payne makes him an exception to the rule of only focusing on natives for my in-development Nebraska Film Heritage Project. By the way, one of the films that Payne produced during his seven year hiatus from directing features was The Savages, whose writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, is Taylor’s wife. That Payne and Taylor have kept their personal friendship and creative professional relationship intact over 25-plus years, including a production company they shared together, is a remarkable feat in today’s ephemeral culture and society.

NOTE: For you film buffs out there, I will be interviewing Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore and showing clips of his work at Kaneko in the Old Market, on Thursday, July 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will include a Q & A. For details and tickets, visit–

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light

Link to my cover story about Mauro and more info about the event at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/05/04/master-of-light-mauro-fiore/

 

 

<a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> and <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Alexander+Payne&family=editorial&specificpeople=202578 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Alexander Payne</a>, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

 

Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne

Published in a fall 2005 issue of The Reader

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.

Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.

Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).

With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.

Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.

Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.

”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”

For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.

”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”

Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.

“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”

 

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> attend 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer Jim Taylorattend ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

 

He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.

Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the Parents, Jurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

“With those projects we’re trying to accommodate the needs of a different director and we generally don’t have much time, so we don’t allow problems to linger as long as we would, which is good practice,” said Taylor. “It’s good for us to have to work fast. We’ll power through stuff, where we might let it sit longer and just let ourselves be stuck.”

Ego suppression explains in part how they avoid any big blow ups.

”I think it’s because both of us are interested in making a good movie more than having our own ideas validated,” Taylor said. “So we are able to, hopefully, set our egos aside when we’re working and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ or, ‘That’s a better idea.’ I think a lot of writing teams split up because they’re too concerned about protecting what they did as opposed to remembering what’s good for the script. We can work out disagreements without having any fallout from it. It’s funny. I mean, sometimes we do act like a married couple. There’s negotiations to be made. But mostly we just get along and enjoy working together.”

As conjurers in the idiom of comedy, he said, “I think our shared sensibilities are similar enough that if I can make him laugh or he can make me laugh, then we feel like we’re on the right track.”

Collaboration is nothing new for Taylor, a Pomona College and New York University Tisch School of the Arts grad, who’s directed a short as well as second unit work on Payne shoots (most of the 16 millimeter footage in Election) and is developing feature scripts for himself to direct.

”For me, I didn’t set out to be a screenwriter, I set out to be a filmmaker,” said Taylor, a former Cannon Films grunt and assistant to director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way). So did Alexander. And we kind of think of it all as one process, along with editing…People say everything is writing. Editing is writing and in a strange way acting is writing, and all that. Filmmaking itself is a collaborative medium. People drawn to filmmaking are drawn to working with other people. Sure, a lot of screenwriters do hole up somewhere so they’re not disturbed, but I’m not like that and Alexander’s not like that. I don’t like working on my own. I like to bounce ideas off people. Filmmaking demands it, as opposed to being a novelist or a painter, who work in forms that aren’t necessarily collaborative.”

Simpatico as they are, there’s also a pragmatic reason for pairing up.

”We just don’t like doing it alone and it’s less productive, too. And we sort of have similar ideas, so why not do it together? Even beyond that, it’s like a quantum leap in creativity. You’re just sort of inspired more to come up with something than if you’re just sitting there and hating what you’re doing. At least there’s somebody there going, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ or, ‘How do we do this?’ And you sort of stick with the problem as opposed to going off and cleaning out a drawer or something.”

Payne says scripting with someone else makes the writing process “less hideous.” For Taylor, flying solo is something to be avoided at all costs.

”I hate it. I really hate it. I mean, I do it, but it’s very slow and I don’t think it’s as good,” he said. “I’m getting Alexander’s input on something I’ve been working on for a long, long time on my own, a screenplay called The Lost Cause about a Civil War reenactor, and I expect it to became 50 percent better just because of working with him. We’ll essentially do with it what we do on a production rewrite.”

Lost Cause was part of a “blind deal” Taylor had with Paramount’s Scott Rudin, now at Disney. The fate of Taylor’s deal is unclear.

Writing with his other half, Taylor said, opens a script to new possibilities. “I’ll see it through different eyes when I’m sitting next to Alexander and maybe have ideas I wouldn’t otherwise.”

 

Sideways Photo

 

The pair’s operated like this since their first gig, co-writing short films for cable’s Playboy Inside Out series. The friends and one time roommates have been linked ever since. ”It’s pretty hard to extract the friendship from the partnership or vice versa. It’s all kind of parts of the same thing. We don’t end up seeing each other that much because we live in separate cities, unless we’re working together,” Taylor said. “So our friendship is a little bit dependent on our work life at this point, which is too bad.” However, he added there’s an upside to not being together all the time in the intense way collaborators interact, “It’s important to not get too overdosed on who you’re working with.”

He can’t imagine them going their separate ways unless there’s a serious falling out. ”That would only happen of we had personal problems with each other. Sometimes, people naturally drift apart, and we’re both working against that. We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t just drift away, because that would be sad.”

Keeping the alliance alive is complicated by living on opposite coasts and the demands of individual lives/careers. But when Taylor talks about going off one day to make his own movies, he means temporarily. He knows Payne has his back. “He’s supportive of my wanting to direct. But I’m so happy working with him that if that were all my career was, I’d be a very lucky person.”

Lensing April 1, Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ promises to be his most ambitious film to date

April 1, 2016 Comments off

After not directing a feature film for seven years following Sideways, Alexander Payne professed he would start making films with more frequency starting with The Descendants. He’s kept his word, too, by making Nebraska and now comes Downsizing, whose production starts April 1. With its science fiction high concept or big idea, the new film is a stand alone project for the Oscar-winner in some ways but once you get past the hook of miniaturized humans it plays, at least on the page, much like all his work, with some major exceptions. For example, while much of the story’s action is quite intimate and centered around closely observed human frailities, there is an end of world backdrop informing it all. Never have the stakes been so high in a Payne film.

A month ago I broke the story of the film’s plot and in this new post I offer additional context from my own reading of the script and from interviews I did with Payne about the screenplay and about various other aspects of the project. Payne is working with his most star laden cast, with his largest crew, with visual effects for the first time and on sound stages for the first time, all of which makes this film a must follow and presumably a must see. Add to that a vast physical production shooting in three countries and telling a story rife with social-political issues, and you have a film that would seeem to demand attention. When you add its metaphorical, fable-like narrative, well, then it may just be a film for the ages.

Watch for more updates and stories about the making of this film and interviews with some of its key creatives.

 

Lensing April 1, Payne’s Downsizing promises to be his most ambitious film to date

Project shooting in L.A. Omaha, Norway and Toronto goes small to tackle big themes

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film (new edition out summer 2016)

Exclusive for Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories @ leoadambiga.com

 

 

Payne’s film about miniaturized human life tackles big themes

 

The fact that Alexander Payne’s seventh feature turned out to be Downsizing came as no real surprise since he and Jim Taylor labored over the script 10 years. They nearly got it made twice, which is why Google searches bring up links and references to earlier incarnations of the project, including stars and studios formerly attached who dropped away in the intervening years. As Payne puts it, the time was finally right for the project to happen.

Payne reportedly had an all-star cast attached to the project when it first gained steam nearly a decade ago. Though the actors have changed, the final cast of Downsizing constitutes the greatest collective star power and depth of talent yet seen in one of his films. The names include an Oscar winner, box office draws, critical darlings and international artists from other nations. None has previously worked with Payne.That who’s-who roster includes: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Neal Patrick Harris, Alec Baldwin, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Paul Mabon, Warren Belle and Hong Chau.

In some interesting casting notes, just days before the April 1 shoot start it was announced that Reese Witherspoon, long slated to play Damon’s wife, was no longer attached to the project and that Kristen Wiig had replaced her. I cannot recall anything like that happening so late in the process on any of Payne’s previous films. I have to think that Wiig had already been considered or that Damon recommended her since she appeared with him in the critically acclaimed The Martian. Wiig represents the second Saturday Night Live (italics) alumnus, after Will Forte, to grace one of his films. And with the casting of Paul Mabon and Warren Belle, there will finally be black actors in speaking parts in a Payne film. The absence of people of color in his films had not gone unnoticed. There are even some well-known actors of color from Omaha who have expressed dismay or disappointment at that lack.

Since it has been revealed elsewhere I can also reveal here  a major plot point involving Wiig’s character. Read on to to learn that.

Years back, when Payne spoke about the film in only cryptic terms, he referred to it as being in the spirit of an episodic Robert Altmanesque ensemble piece, Some of if does play that way on the page, although Payne and Taylor tend to be more narratively disciplined than Altman was.

The basic hook has been public knowledge for some time. The IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) log line reads: “A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.” Not much to go on. But the idea of miniaturized human life does set the mind to conjuring all sorts of scenarios. Something not left to the imagination but rather always known about the project is its reliance on visual effects in order to make believable the conceit of science giving human beings the option to be radically reduced in size. Effects are the only way to realize that on screen. It follows then that Downsizing is a science fiction flick, though Payne does not come right out and call it that. But clearly it resides somewhere in the sci-fi genre.

I do not mean to suggest Payne in any way distances himself from science fiction, In an interview with me he actually referenced a quote he attributed to the great author Ray Bradbury, who when asked something to the effect, you are such a great writer but why do you write science fiction, which of course implied that the genre is somehow inferior to or less important than other literature. Payne remembered Bradbury’s answer as something like – Well, science fiction is the most realistic genre. While I could not find that quotation from Bradbury, I did find these quotations attributed to him that seem to make the same point:

“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done…” and “Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious.”

Any number of other great sci-fi authors, from Robert Heinlein to Isaac Asimov to Frank Herbert, have said similar things; the common sentiment being that the genre draws on humankind’s oldest, deepest, and unfolding yearnings and imaginings and therefore it resides in the very nature of what it means to be alive from moment to moment.

Up until early 2016, all one could glean about the project is that after previous tries to get it financed the film finally found a home at Paramount, the studio that also produced Payne’s Nebraska. All the trade press had to go on was that tease of a premise about miniaturization. Everything else was pure conjecture. Even with that bare thread it was not hard to conceive what fertile territory such a set up provided Payne and Taylor. Still, unless you read the script, saying anything more about Downsizing was supposition since Payne was protective about the story he and Taylor so long nurtured. Principal cast and crew were similarly reticent in giving anything away.

I actually ended up being the first journalist to report on the plot of Downsizing after Payne let me read the script and interview him about it. It is a practice we have long held. He shares his final drafts with me on a for-my-eyes-only basis and I am then able to mine depths not afforded other writers. I was also the first to get Payne to speak at any length about the project. You can link to that earlier story at-

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=downsizing

Breaking that worldwide exclusive was extremely satisfying. I hope it offered a tantalizing preview of what should be one of the most talked about features of 2017. In this new exclsuive I reveal a bit more than I could at the time about the film since the project is now underway and the publicity apparatus behind it is gearing up.

 

 

    Getty Images

Matt Damon

Kristen-Wiig

Kristen Wiig
Christoph Waltz
Christoph Walz

 

All scripts go through some evolutionary process but Downsizing’s lasted longer than most. Earlier versions contained more characters and scenes that stretched the budget necessary to create on screen miniaturized human life set against the backdrop of vast global events.

“It’s the same basic strange story we’ve been working on for these many years but finally in 2014, right after I finished Nebraska, Jim and I returned to the script and we finally had the courage to jettison certain aspects of the script, which we still miss,” Payne explained.

The script cuts were mandated “to compact the script into a decent form and length” that correlated to the budget the project could afford on the open market of film financing. Making things more complicated, as my article references, were the detours or digressions that Payne and Taylor take with their scripts.

“Jim and I tend not to write screenplays which conform to traditional contemporary screenplay structure,” Payne said. “Maybe they do after the fact, but while we’re writing and while we’re in the midst of it were writing what feels to us like a shaggy dog story.

Downsizing was shaping up to be an unwieldy shaggy dog story until getting pruned into its shooting script form.

As my earlier article also alludes to, there is naturally a tendency to assume that because of Downsizing’s subject matter and sci-fi contours, it must be a major departure from the artist’s previous work. Payne disagrees. I concur that it in fact conforms quite neatly into the examination of minutiae running through all his work. In this case the minutiae just happens to coincide with miniaturization. So, where will Downsizing fit in the Payne canon? That cannot be known with any certainty until the film is released and reviewed. But I can surmise some things based on what I have read and on what Payne and his collaborators have told me about his vision for committing the story to the screen.

With this project, he digs even deeper than before to expose universal human fears, resentments, prejudices, and desires. There is great portent in the context for why people choose to be miniaturized in the first place. Payne and Taylor set the key events of the story in some near future when Earth is on the brink of disaster due to worsening natural resource depletion and global warming events. Therefore, the film explores the consequences of scarcity thinking run amok.

The story connects with the zeitgeist of impending doom in the air fueled by the threat of melting ice caps and global terrorism and the fear that some contagion will precipitate a zombie plague apocalypse.

“Well, you read it in the paper every day,” Payne told me. “Everyone’s talking about it. People have a genuine sense of finality these days. A hundred years, two hundred years, whatever it might be, that we have left. People have for millennia, well at least centuries – ‘Oh, the end of the world is coming,’ and usually in some bogus religious context. But now it’s occurring in a scientific and empirical context. So, I don’t know, we thought it’d be fun to make a comedy about it.”

He also plays with the notion that faced with such dire circumstances people will respond in very different ways. Some will choose to do nothing, either out of denial or despair, while others will engage in hedonism and exploitation. A few brave souls will be pioneers who undergo reduction and with it downsize their consumption footprint. But as our protagonist Paul. played by Matt Damon, discovers, that transformation unalterably separates him from his previous life. Additionally, instead of downsizing eliminating the problems of the big world that baggage follows him to the small world, where he encounters a whole new set of issues on top of the old ones. The small and normal worlds coexist in uneasy tension. The bigs look down, literally and figuratively, on the smalls. The smalls resent being marginalized and patronized by the bigs. All of it serves as rich metaphor for the bigotry and discrimination that historically attend The Other and that result in segregation and isolation.

 

 

      Jason Sudeikis

Alec Baldwin and Jason Sudeikis

Neil Patrick Harris  Neil Patrick Harris

Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Inherent Vice" - Arrivals

Hong Chau

 

Paul finds the same avarice, conflict, and inequity of the outside world present in the contrived new world he enters. He is a good-hearted, dutiful worker bee who just wants to do the right thing as a husband, as a son, as a neighbor, as a friend, as a citizen. In the big world he is an occupational therapist who tries hard to please his wife (played by Kristen Wiig), care for his mother, and help people with their physical ailments. Then, after a betrayal, he is thrust into the small world bereft of everything he held dear. Instead of the promised utopia, he finds a cold, artificial construct under glass called Leisureland Estates that sucks the life right out of him.

The aforementioned betrayal happens when his wife, who has talked Paul into the two of them being miniaturizized, backs out of the downsizing process at the last minute. He only learns about her change of heart when it is too late and his own miniaturization is complete. He is stuck and there is no going back. Talk about a bummer.

Payne once had Paul Giamatti lined up to play Paul, but that was years ago. Matt Damon brings the same kind of ordinariness to bear with the advantage of being a bankable leading man.

“Among contemporary leading men he is the closest thing we have to an Every Man,” Payne said. “We saw it in The Martian particularly. More and more he is assuming the role that say James Stewart and more recently Tom Hanks used to play. At least you can relate to the guy and you can project some of your own fears, yearnings, aspirations onto his face. You understand him. There are many contemporary American stars with whom I don’t have that relationship. I can’t project any of my vulnerabilities or fears or aspirations onto their faces. But on Matt Damon’s, I can, and he’s kind of the only one we have at that upper level. We don’t have Dustin Hoffman as a young man any more, or Al Pacino or Jack Lemmon or James Stewart. Other people can disagree with me and say what about this one or what about that one but really among the upper echelon of contemporary American movie stars Matt Damon comes the closest to being our Everyman.”

Two actors expert at incisive comedy, Alec Baldwin and Neil Patrick Harris, play a real estate magnate and a salesman, respectively, who make fodder of the downsizing phenomenon. In this odd new existence, uprooted from all he knew, Paul struggles finding his bearings and thus his identity. He keeps running up against systems and persons predisposed to take advantage of the naive, the weak, the powerless, the dispossessed.

There is much here that makes subtle barbed reference to the false American Dream sold to the masses in real life. The fabricated small world set aside for the miniaturized population is suggestive of the internment-refugee camps, ghettos, and other confined areas that minorities have traditionally been relegated to by the majority population. Payne and Taylor also imply that the name Downsizing refers to the ever narrow-minded views and declining values so prevalent today among nations and leaders.

 

Udo Kier
Paul Mabon
Warren Belle

 

Warren Belle

 

 

Far from being only a bleak take on things, Payne and Taylor also portray this social experiment as a full-blooded experience where people are still passionate and where desire still rules the human heart. Paul eventually finds his way but in a most unexpected series of events that introduces him to people caught up in social-political-criminal intrigue. As with any fable where the protagonist is adrift in a strange new environment – think Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit and Star Wars for starters – Paul partners with fellow travelers navigating the surreal landscape. One is a female Vietnamese dissident played by Hong Chau and the other is a crooked Serbian entrepreneur played by Christoph Waltz.

“You’ve got the guy who’s on his journey, you’ve got the love interest who helps him do so and then you’ve got the reluctant, self-absorbed helper,” is how Payne described this troika “As American a place as Leisureland Estates is in New Mexico we still wanted to have a sense of the global impact of downsizing – of the miniaturization process – and that in any small city around the world you might meet very diverse people, and Paul does.”

All of it leads Paul to unknowingly assume a key role in a great shift about to occur in human history. In the process this meek man discovers he is stronger than he thinks. The plot-line makes Downsizing a Passage story of epic, mythic, even heroic dimensions

The story moves across great swaths of time and space. It opens in a setting that could be a prehistoric cave but that turns out to be a haven somewhere and sometime else altogether. In what is the most physically ambitious of Payne’s films to date, we are taken to locations as diverse as South Omaha, the small world enclosure known as Leisureland, the fjords of Norway and a Middle Earth. Payne and the largest crew he has ever worked with will work in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, and Norway to capture actual locales. They will create imaginary locales on sound stages and in effects suites in Toronto.

The film ended up being based in Toronto for practical reasons, namely the generous tax credits offered by that country and American money stretching even farther there due to the soft Canadian dollar. The presence of Toronto’s extensive, state of the art Pinewood Studios also helped sway Paramount to cross borders. For years now California state officials have railed against U.S. productions leaving the historical base of the American film industry, Hollywood, to shoot elsewhere but it is particularly galling when projects leave the country altogether to go north of the border. Incentives go a long way toward enticing filmmakers and their studios to shoot somewhere. It is an incredibly competitive environment, too, as states and countries vie for slices of the Hollywood pie. Norway sweetened the pot for Downsizing by receiving backing from the Norwegian Film Institute’s new incentive scheme for international and local films and series. The picture, which plans to make great use of Norway’s coastal and fjord areas, reportedly got four and a half million in Norwegian krones (equal to about 685,000 U.S. dollars).

In all his films, but most concretely starting with About Schmidt, Payne lays out a literal journey of self-discovery for his protagonists, each of whom is driven by crisis. When Warren Schmidt loses his career and wife he hits the road in search of himself only to learn it is an inside job. Screw-ups Jack and Miles lay waste to wine country in a dissolute attempt to avoid growing up before coming to terms with reality and love. After learning his comatose wife cheated on him, Matt’s chase for revenge leads to reconciliation with the past. Woody and David set out on a seemingly silly quest only to have key revelations and truths revealed. Paul’s self-worth shrinks with his body until he finds new resolve and purpose in the emerging new world he is catapulted into.

Thus, Downsizing is the latest in an unfolding narrative Payne posits about the human condition. All of life is a journey, he is telling us. We are both observers and participants, so buckle up and try to enjoy the ride because it is all we get in our finite lifetime. If we pay attention, we may just learn something about ourselves along the way and perhaps grow from the experience.

Oscar-winner Waltz was not mentioned in the first exclusive piece I broke because his casting had not been yet been announced. He is the latest in a growing number of prominent actors who have signed to work with Payne in recent years. With any Payne watch. it is fun to speculate with whom he might next work. One of the anticipatory joys of Downsizing will be how the impressive ensemble he worked with mesh together. Given Payne’s meticulous casting and outstanding record of working with actors, it is a good bet the results will be entertaining and perhaps even provide some of these artists’ most memorable performances.

 

 
 
 

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films


If there ever has been the equivalent of a Nebraska New Wave in cinema, then the time may be now. That is the assertion or suggestion I make in this Reader (www.thereader.com) story about the 2016 Omaha Film Festival and its Nebraska Spotlight focus on homegrown films and filmmakers.

 

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films

Nebraska New Wave in cinema featured at fest

It used to be conversations about local filmmakers doing relevant work here began and ended with Alexander Payne and Nik Fackler. That’s changing now and the March 8-13 Omaha Film Festival (OFF) is evidence of it.

The 11-year-old fest, back for the third year at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema, is programming more selections with local ties courtesy its new Nebraska Spotlight lineup of feature-length narrative and documentary films. This acknowledgement that a Nebraska New Wave in cinema is upon us follows breakout work by homegrown filmmakers Dan Susman, James Duff, Patty Dillon, Charles Hood, Jim Fields, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman, Yolonda Ross, Patrick Coyle, Charles Fairbanks, Jason Fischer and others. Spotlight now provides a dedicated platform for feature filmmakers and their films who have some link to this place.

The fest is not as parochial as this sounds, Most OFF entries have no Neb. connection whatsoever. But Spotlight is that showcase for emerging and established local filmmakers to shine.

Omaha indie rocker Tim Kasher is showing his feature writing-directorial debut No Resolution. Award-winning resident video photojournalist Mele Mason has a new documentary I Dream of an Omaha Where with a powerful local theme. OFF co-founder Jason Levering, who adapted Stephen King’s The Shining to the stage, is premiering a first feature he co-wrote and directed, Blind Luck.

Itinerant area actor Lonnie Senstock’s doc Once in a Lew Moon profiles Hollywood luminary Lew Hunter. Omaha thespian Erich Hover has produced a highly personal story drawn from his own life in It Snows All the Time. Writer-director Matt Sobel mined memories of Loup City family reunions for his first feature, Take Me to the River. It played Sundance last year.

 

It Snows All the Time 

March 9 @ 5:45 p.m.

Erich Hover’s passion project dramatizes his father’s real life struggle with frontotemporal dementia and how its debilitating effects have impacted the family. Hover shared the story with actor-writer-director Jay Giannone, who brought it to his writing partner, Eric Watson, a Darren Aronofsky collaborator. The resulting script by Giannone and Watson landed Brett Cullen as the father and Lesley Ann Warren as the wife. Hover plays a film version of himself in the film that Giannone directed. The name cast includes Omaha’s own John Beasley.

The pic shot in and around Omaha.

 

Black Luck

March 10 @ 8:30 p.m.

Jason Levering and David Weiss directed a script Levering wrote with Garrett Sheeks. The log line reads: “A hit man in hiding struggles to keep his monsters at bay when his dark past comes calling.” Levering says, “Although the subject matter seems like familiar ground, our take is more story-driven than action-oriented, offering the audience a thriller with a mystery at its core and several twists and turns. We did some non-traditional things with our storytelling. We went theChinatown route with our main character, whose face is covered in bandages for most of the film due to the beatings his suffers.”

The film shot in Omaha with a local cast.

 

No Resolution

March 11 @ 6 p.m.

“I’ve been wanting to shoot a movie for most of my life. This is the culmination of that, I guess,” Tim Kasher says. “I’ve written a handful of scripts over the years. This just happens to be the latest one I’ve written. The story is a fairly intense evening between an engaged couple who are at an impasse in their relationship. I’m obsessed with this long, drawn-out sort of fight on screen. But a lot occurs in between the arguments as well.”

He shot the flick in Chicago. it features his own music and that of friends. Kasher previously only directed video shorts. He got advice from two filmmaker friends, Nik Fackler and Dana Altman. “They have helped unravel some of the mystery for me,” he says. “I really enjoyed all of it. It’s all so exciting. I even love how long the days are. I could hardly sleep each night, and then I would sleep so hard for a few condensed hours out of absolute fatigue.”

 

Once in a Lew Moon

March 12 @ 3:45 p.m.

The subject of this documentary, Lew Hunter, is the classic small town boy made good in Hollywood story. This former executive at all three major networks and Disney is also a writer-producer with notable made-for-TV movie credits to his name. But he’s best known as the author of the never out of print bible for scriptwriting, Screenwriting 434, based on the UCLA graduate class he’s taught since 1979. Filmmaker Lonnie Senstock captures the warm, communal spirit Hunter creates with students at UCLA and at the screenwriting colony he leads at his home in Superior, Nebraska.

 

Take Me to the River

March 12 @ 6:15 p.m.

Matt Sobel grew up in Calif. but came to Neb. for family reunions. A dream he had about being falsely accused of something terrible at a reunion so upset him he set out to capture “that visceral sensation” in a script that otherwise tells a fictional story. He filmed at the very farm he visited for those reunions. Rising star Logan Miller plays the boy, Ryder, who finds himself under suspicion on the very weekend he’s coming out. The cast is rounded out by veteran supporting players.

All indie filmmakers have a rite-of-passage getting their work from page to screen, Sobel’s circuitous path took him on Cannes, Rotterdam and Manitoba detours before ending up back in Nebraska.

 

I Dream of an Omaha Where…

March 13 @ 2:30 p.m.

Mele Mason documented a local collaborative project moderated by national performance artist Daniel Beaty that involved former gang members and people affected by gangs.

“The project took participants through intense and moving workshops to a performance of a play utilizing workshop transcripts. I was able to document each step of this incredible process,” Mason says. “The I Dream project was a transformative experience for those sharing their stories and is also changing the dialogue in Omaha and similarly affected cities about the nature and impact of gang violence. To me and hopefully to the audience, it puts a human face on those who have or still are participating in gangs and the people who have been tragically affected by gang violence.”

 

When Voices Meet: One Divided Country; One United Choir; One Courageous Journey 

March 13 @ 11:45 a.m.

In addition to the out-of-competition Spotlight features, there’s a feature documentary in competition whose producer-director-editor, Nancy Sutton Smith, teaches at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. When Voices Meet charts the experiences of a multiracial youth choir formed by musician activists in South Africa following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Ignoring threats, the choir traveled across the country via The Peace Train and became the face for the democracy Mandela moved the nation towards. The group performed for seven years, Members remained close friends. They reunited to share their stories.

A TV segment Smith produced about The Peace Train led to a decade-long collaboration that resulted in the documentary, which has become an award-winning darling at festivals.

 

The fest also has its usual block of locally produced shorts. The OFF Conference will include industry panelists from Nebraska. Conference Q&A’s and Fest parties offer opportunities to meet film artists,

Add to these local film currents Alexander Payne’s Downsizing lensing this spring (a week in Omaha) with Matt Damon and Reese Witherspoon, the features East Texas Hot Links and The Magician gearing up for area shoots, plus Dan Mirvish with a new project and Nik Fackler writing scripts again, and the local cinema culture is popping. Once the Dundee Theater reopens, it’s a full-on moviepalooza in this dawning Nebraska New Wave movement.

For the complete OFF schedule, visit http://omahafilmfestival.org/.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

READ ALL ABOUT IT EXCLUSIVE – Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” starring Matt Damon and Reese Witherspoon

February 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Here is your first and only exclusive insider’s look at Oscar-winner Alexander Payne’s jusst under production new film, “Downsizing,” starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and other stars. From yours truly, Leo Adam Biga, the chronicler of this important writer-director since 1997 and the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” – soon to be re-released with a new design, plus updated and expanded content.

UPDATE In its original version this story reported that Reese Witherspoon would co-star alongside Matt Damon, but only days before the April 1 production start it was announced she was no longer attached to the project and that Kristin Wiig had replaced her.

Since this story was first published in early March, Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz, along with Udo Kier, Paul Mabon and Warren Belle were officially added to the cast.

 

Payne’s film about miniaturized human life tackles big themes

 

 

READ ALL ABOUT IT EXCLUSIVE – Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” starring Matt Damon

Film about miniaturized human life tackles big themes

‘Downsizing’ finally going before the cameras April 1

©by Leo Adam Biga, Your A.P. Expert and Author of Soon to Reboot “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Original story appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The high concept behind Alexander Payne’s soon to shoot new feature, Downsizing, unfolds in a near future world where humans can opt to be miniaturized. Everything about the story, from the title to the characters to the plot-lines, gives Payne and co-scriptwriter Jim Taylor ample metaphorical opportunities.

The big budgeted Paramount picture starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Sudeikis, Alec Baldwin, Paul Wabon, Warren Belle and Hong Chau endured a long gestation. A different cast was attached in 2008-2009 before the road to financing collapsed with the economy. The pieces almost came together again in 2014. All the while, the script, begun in 2006, got reworked and pared down to meet the budget cap Hollywood placed on this risky project marking Payne’s first foray into science fiction and visual effects..

The production is based at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where Payne will work for the first time on sound stages and with green screens, CGI and motion capture. Little or no forced perspective will be used.

The sprawling, three-month shoot rolls out April 1 for a week in Los Angeles, then comes to Omaha for a few days. The whole works heads off to Norway for more shooting but the bulk will occur across the border in Canada, where post-production will also happen.

Arch satirists Payne and Taylor use the downsizing premise to skewer the small-mindedness of persons, policies. constructs. In this new work the veteran scenarists, whose previous credits together include the Payne-directed Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, suggest not only are Earth’s physical resources at risk but its intellectual-moral capital, too.

Downsizing’s all too real musings on diminishing returns and bankrupt values posits a redemptive protagonist in Paul, a South Omaha Everyman whom Matt Damon will play. Although the story has a fatalistic, end-of-world backdrop, it dangles hope that humankind, in whatever size survives, will muddle through somehow.

That Payne should use science fiction’s expansive prism to consider world crisis issues and explore the nature of humanity may seem at odds with his intimate dramedies about neurosis, infidelity, promiscuity, loneliness, yearning. Then again, all his work has churned the existential wheel with mundane characters bogged down by the weight of their own mess. Just think of the angst that Ruth (Citizen Ruth), Jim (Election), Warren (Schmidt), Miles and Jack (Sideways), Matt (The Descendants) and Woody (Nebraska) confront. For all its fantastic elements this new narrative is anchored in that same morass of folks dealing with adult dilemmas, conflicts and flaws. Problems dog them wherever they go, even the would-be miniature haven, Leisureland.

And why shouldn’t Payne dip his toes in the sci-fi pool when filmmakers equally identified with humanistic storytelling have done the same? John Sayles (The Brother from Another Planet) and Barry Levinson (Sphere) come to mind.

Besides, sci-fi is a liberating and therefore attractive gateway for artists to tackle large, serious subjects free of constraints. The genre invites storytellers to ponder endless what ifs. In that spirit Payne and Taylor lay out an imagined scenario and burrow down that rabbit hole of speculation to follow what they deem the inevitable consequences.

Downsizing hinges on a hero sensitively responding to a world around him transformed. The implications and stakes are deeply personal and global. At least on the page Payne and Taylor manage to make us care about the micro and macro. Paul’s journey pulls us along this upheaval of life as he knew it. Expectations, definitions and limitations are threatened or overturned. Ultimately, everything is on the line.

 

 

Matt Damon Picture  Kristen Wiig Picture  Christoph Waltz Picture

 

 

Unavoidably, the story echoes other speculative tales, including any dealing with miniature humans. It also resonates with themes from such disparate sources as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Truman Show, Children of Men and The Hobbit. Payne and Taylor concoct a fable-like framework to hold the narrative together.

The most obvious if unintentional resonance – to The Incredible Shrinking Man – happens at the end, when our hero-pioneer once more enters the great unknown. As with Payne’s previous films, the story concludes with a feeling more than an event or a resolution.

Payne, now married to a native of Greece and coming off his stark tone poem Nebraska, recently spoke about Downsizing with The Reader.

“We always knew it would take a while, first to get the script right, then to secure the financing, and 10 years is a long time. Fortunately I was able to squeeze in two other features and a pilot during that time. But it feels right now. You know, it’s interesting that in life, not just film, you try to do something and you run into obstacles. You try again and you run into more obstacles, and you think, This is never going to happen. And then finally when it does it unfolds elegantly and without obstructions and you say, Wow, I guess this was the time it was supposed to happen. That has been my experience with Downsizing.”

As the 125-page script sits now, he says, “the story hums along with a good filmic rhythm.” Achieving that flow was challenging for the.”big idea” at its core. “So big,” he says, “it was difficult during our writing process to always discern where it breaks off because every idea you come up with for this idea has a very long series of chain reactions. So you just kind of drive yourself crazy with possibilities. The script goes in very unpredictable directions. I’m not saying they’re good because they’re unpredictable. They were unpredictable to us as we were writing. So to corral this story and to get it happening as efficiently and we hope elegantly from point to point to point took a while. Right now it looks good on paper. I hope it will lend itself to a good movie. I won’t know that until I’m in post-production.”

He says the big idea that propels the piece is rife with “social-political overtones” but that it’s the “human aspects of the story that most interest us.” Thus, he’s not getting hung up on its sci-fi pedigree. He just enjoys the unlimited canvas he has to work on.

Payne also isn’t stressing the visual effects world he’s entered though he acknowledges he’s a fish out of water.

“It’s a whole new focus for me and everything. I’m not worried but I’m curious to see how they’re going to work. There’ll be a certain amount of tedium involved because you have to shoot the same scene two, sometimes three times to get the different aspects and elements.

“I want to make sure the actors who are acting in a vacuum on a stage against green screen feel as comfortable and normal as possible.  That’s my job. The acting style should not suffer because of the means of production. But it’ll be fine. You know, who cares, it’s just a movie.”

One whose budget is reportedly double any of his previous pics.

“If they don’t spend it on that, they’re just going to spend it on something else.” he says by way of classic Hollywood reasoning.

 

 

Downsizing Neil Patrick Harris Alec Baldwin Jason Sudeikis

 

He feels in good hands with his visual effects supervisor, James Price, with whom he’s been in discussions since 2008-2009.

“He is my effects czar. He knows how to explain things to me to make things easy for me and how to teach me how these things are achieved – what I need to know, what I don’t need to know. It’s really exciting. The best thing those guys do is to free the director up to say, ‘I want a shot like this, can we do this?’ and they say, ‘Yeah, we can do that,’ and I say, ‘How?’ and they say, ‘Don’t worry about how, but we can do it.’ Between the visual effects supervisor, the DP, the production designer,  they have to trick the director as much as possible into thinking that he or she is just shooting a regular movie so that I don’t censor my imagination, or what I have left of it.”

Payne says Price is on the same page as he and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael in terms of the desired visual palette.

“James knows the aesthetic we want and he’s an avid film watcher and film guy and so that makes me feel good. What I aspire to from the visual effects for this movie is not how eye-popping they are but rather how banal they are. I don’t want the seams to show.”

Payne also hopes to keep the effects to a minimum and to “try to do things in camera as much as possible.”

In addition to Price and his visual effects team Payne is working with a new production designer, Stefania Cella. But he’s mainly surrounded by trusted old friends and collaborators in producer Jim Burke, casting director John Jackson, Papamichael and costume designer Wendy Chuck. His longtime editor, Kevin Tent, is on board as well.

After the seven year gulf between Sideways and Descendants, Payne’s happy to be making films in short order. His last, Nebraska, was received warmly in Greece, where he met his wife while vacationing with his mother (Payne’s father passed away in 2014.).

“I showed the film in Greece a couple times and people were only too quick to tell me they thought it was a Greek film, which surprised me. I said, ‘Why do you think it’s a Greek film?’ and they said, ‘Well. it has the elements of going back to the village where your people are from.’ ‘Okay,’ I said. And they connected with the part of dutifully ‘taking care of the parents who drive you crazy,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m sure that’s not just Greek.’ I think that’s pretty universal.”

On the eve of finally making Downsizing after so long a wait and “jettisoning” subplots he admittedly “misses,” he’s content. “A movie is a movie is a movie and we have enough to make this movie, so it’ll be fine. And if the gods decree there might be a Downsizing 2, than we have other ideas that we’ve been collecting.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

February 25, 2016 1 comment

Of all the Hollywood greats Nebraska has produced, and there are far more than you think, Lew Hunter may boast the most impressive career behind the camera outside of Darryl Zanuck from Tinsletown’s Golden Age.  Hunter’s career stacks up well, too, among more more recent Hollywood players from here, such as  Joan Micklin Silver and Alexander Payne.  While it’s true Hunter never ran a major studio the way Zanuck did and has never directed a film the way Silver and Payne have, he did hold high executive level positions at each of the three major broadcast televison networks and at various studios.  And like Zanuck, Silver and Payne, he’s written and produced movies.  But he’s also done some singular things that stand him alone from his predecessor and peers.  For example, he’s taught a well-regarded screenwriting class at UCLA since 1979,  “Screenwriting 434,” that became the title and basis for his best-selling book about how to write screenplays.  He’s also conducted many screenwriting workshops or seminars.  He annually hosts the Superior Screenwriting Colon at his home in Superior, Neb., near his childhood home of Guide Rock.  Unlike the vast majority of Nebraskans who’ve made a name for themselves in film and television, Hunter never lost touch with his Midwest origins and some 15 years ago or so he and his wife Pamela departed the Left Coast to move back to his roots.

He’s now the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon, showing at the Omaha Film Festival.

On this blog you can find an earlier profile I wrote about Lew that drew on my being embedded in his screenwriting colony for several days.

NOTE: Thanks to Lonnie Senstock and Bill Blauvelt for providing some of the photos here.

 

Lew Hunter teaching

Hunter (COVER)

Lew Hunter

 

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the March 2016 issue of the New Horizons

 

Nestled at the bottom of Eastern Nebraska, about a three-hour drive from Omaha, the sleepy hamlet of Superior is home to one-time Hollywood Player Lew Hunter. Pushing 81 and retirement now, he still exerts enough influence to bring Tinseltown types to this isolated  spot. Growing up a Neb. farm boy not far from there, Hunter dreamed of doing something in show business and he did as a television network and Hollywood studio executive. producer, screenwriter.

He’s on the short list of Nebraskans with major Hollywood credits. He isn’t as well known as some as his success came behind the camera, not in front of it. Not since Darryl Zanuck’s mogul days did a native reside so far within Hollywood’s inside circle as Hunter. Of past screen legends from Neb., he says, “These people were role models for me.”

Hunter’s a role model himself for having programmed popular network shows in the 1960s and 1970s that still draw viewers on Nick at Nite. Some mini-series and TV movies he shepherded for the networks were sensations in their time. Three movies he wrote, two of which he produced himself, earned huge shares and generated much discussion for their sensitive treatment of hard issues.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Site of the Superior Screenwriting Colony

 

 

 

A full life and an amazing career

Hunter’s the first to tell you he’s led one helluva life.– one as big as his oversized personality. Given where he came from, his career seems unlikely, but a desire to prove himself drove him to succeed.

Throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, he was enamored by the movies and radio. Then, during the Cold War and Baby Boom, he fell under TV’s spell.

Weaned on MGM, RKO and Paramount musicals – the only motion pictures his mother allowed him to see – he projected himself into the fantasies he saw in the lone theater in his hometown of Guide Rock. He imagined himself up there on the silver screen.

“I wanted to be Fred Astaire so bad. I danced with a pitchfork, and the pitchfork was Ginger Rogers.”

The barnyard filled in for a ballroom or nightclub.

The fact that Hunter went on to enjoy a storybook career rubbing shoulders with the likes of Astaire and other stars does not escape him. He knows how fortunate he was to create top-rated movies of the week. He’s grateful to be emeritus chairman and screenwriting professor at UCLA and to have written a book based on his class, Screenwriting 434, that’s the bible for cracking the scriptwriting code.

Some of his students have enjoyed major film-TV careers, including Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, one of dozens of great screenwriters and directors Hunter’s had as guests for his class. Those sessions have featured everyone from the late Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman to William Goldman and Oliver Stone.

Hunter’s the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon. It portrays his love of the writing craft and writers and the reciprocal love writers feel for him. The feature-length film by fellow Neb. native Lonnie Senstock premiered at UCLA, where Hunter’s retiring after this quarter. The doc screens at the Omaha Film Festival on March 12.

This once big wheel and still beloved figure in Hollywood gave up that lifestyle years ago when he and his wife Pamela settled near his boyhood origins to make their home in Superior. Twice a year there he convenes the Superior Screenwriting Colony, an immersive two-week workshop for aspiring and emerging film-TV writers. He leads it in an inimitable style that is equal parts Billy Graham, Big Lebowski and Aristotle on the Great Plains.

This prodigiously educated and well-read man once considered entering the ministry. He long served as the lay leader of a Methodist congregation. He does treat screenplays with a reverence usually reserved for the scriptures. When he gets rolling about scene structure and character development, he might as well be a preacher. Far from being a choir boy though, this let-your-hair-down free spirit uses coarse language the way some people use punctuation. There was a time when he drank to excess. A naturally verbose man and born raconteur, his preferred way of teaching is telling stories. Asides and anecdotes beget full-blown stories. He has a vast store of them.

The site of the Colony is a restored Victorian mansion across from another period house he and Pamela occupy. He’s prone to lecture in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet. While professing he keeps near him a file folder bulging with lecture materials. He fishes out writerly quotes, excerpts or tidbits to share, referencing Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Joseph Campbell. He relates how as a Northwestern University grad student he asked guest lecturer John Steinbeck what to do to be a great writer. The legend’s response: “Write!” Hunter’s appropriated a variation as his sign-off in letters and emails: “Write on!”

Colony sessions are largely unscripted improvisations. Hunter doesn’t need notes, he says, “because the structure is exactly the structure I do in a 10-week class.” At table readings he reads, aloud, students’ ideas or outlines and offers verbal notes, inviting group feedback. He proffers precise analysis that constitutes Lew’s Rules.

“Too little story.” “Too much story.” “What’s your story really about?” “Your imagination is the only restriction you have.” “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” “Story, story, story.” “Character, character, character.” “All comedy and all drama is based on the three-act structure.” “My paradigm is situation, consequences and conclusion.” “Don’t even think about writing down to the audience.”

His rapid-fire yet relaxed, let-it-all-hang-out approach is fun. But his sunny, cruise-ship-recreation-director manner is leavened by a semi-scholarly seriousness that makes clear this is no joke. There’s work to be done and no time to waste, well, maybe a little. Students pay thousands of dollars to attend, many traveling long distances to participate. Perks include drop-in visits by Hollywood friends like Kearney native Jon Bokenkamp, creator of The Blacklist.

Colonists aim to please their guru, whose laid-back Socratic Method has its charms. It suits this one-time King of Pitchers who bent the ear of producers and executives when trying to sell a story idea or script. Hunter knew how to play the game because he was on the other side as a producer-executive, listening to writers-directors pitch him.

How it all happened for Hunter is, well, a story. One he’s only too glad to share. It aptly falls into three-acts. But leave it to Hunter to digress.

 

15 Lew Hunter 2

Lew back in his salad days at the networks

 

Midwest roots

Raised in an “extraordinarily conservative” environment full of narrow-minded views – “I felt like I had a pretty sheltered life” – Hunter had a lot of growing up to do post-Guide Rock.

His classically trained mother exposed him to cultural things to round out the corn pone experience. For example she had him take dance and music lessons. His father was “known as the most loved and strongest man in Webster County” before a massive stroke left him paralyzed and unable to speak. “The first 12 years of my life I had him and then I lost him to a stroke and aphasia,” Hunter recalls.

As his father slipped further away, Hunter’s overbearing “hell on wheels” mother became the dominant presence in his life.

“She was the head of the Nebraska Republican Party, the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) in her lifetime. Someone asked me once, did you love your mother?” and I said, ‘Well, I think I loved her, but I didn’t much like her. I respected her. And my father, I adored.”

A bright boy who felt betrayed by life for taking away his father and bored with his surroundings, Hunter rebelled. He got caught doing petty vandalism. With his mother unable to handle him, a judge offered a choice – reform school or military school. Hunter chose the latter. A valuable takeaway from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington Mo. came playing football. Back home he had no experience with African-Americans. He only heard disparaging, scornful things. Then one game while playing guard he went up against a black tackle whose extreme effort and high ability made a lie of what he was told.

“I got the shit beat out of me. That was a very good learning lesson. I deserved it.”

Hunter’s racial education continued at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, where his roommate was a black student-athlete.

“Meeting him was clearly one of the best things. We palled around together. He took me down to the jazz cellars in Lincoln.”

Hunter became enough of a jazz devotee that at 17 he hitchhiked to Chicago to see Art Tatum at the Blue Note.

He studied theater at Wesleyan and he made his first foray into show biz working at Lincoln radio and TV stations.

“I became so caught up in the idea of being a professional that it spurred me to go to Chicago.”

 

Hunter, Coppola  B & W

Lew with Francis Ford Coppola

 

 

Rebel with a cause

Intent on studying broadcasting at Northwestern, he applied but was rejected. Not taking no for an answer he garnered letters of support from Neb. dignitaries and struck a bargain with school officials to enroll on a probational basis. If he got all As, he stayed. If he got even one B, he’d leave. He stayed and excelled, earning a master’s in 1956.

“That rebellious aspect of me is still part of me.”

He worked in Chicago radio as a disc jockey and producer. But he wanted out of the Midwest in order to try his hand in Hollywood. Everyone he consulted told him to quit what they considered a cockeyed dream and stay put. Instead, he followed his heart and went.

“I’ve been pretty much a guy that ‘no’ is just a word on the way to ‘yes.’ If I really want something bad enough, I keep on it.”

He did not head out alone. Though barely 20, he was already married. He and his young bride packed their Packard and hoped for the best.

He laid the groundwork for his eventual break into the big time by getting a second master’s at UCLA, this time studying film.

“I went to UCLA on a David Sarnoff Fellowship. I took a lot of pleasure and pride in that.”

He used that opportunity to get his foot in the door.

Future cinema legend Francis Ford Coppola was a classmate. Years after their graduate student days, Hunter had Coppola appear at the UCLA class he teaches to talk screenwriting with students.

At the Westwood campus Hunter indulged in some serious hero worship of his favorite instructor, Arthur Ripley.

“I had very specific mentoring with Arthur Ripley. I just adored him. He was the most charismatic, interesting man.”

Hunter says Ripley’s sarcastic humor was reflected in a famous one-liner attributed to him. When stoic former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge died Ripley was said to have cracked, “How could they tell?”

A veteran from Hollywood’s early sound era, Ripley helped create the miserly, misanthropic W.C. Fields character the comedian parlayed to great success. Ripley worked for cinema giants Mack Sennett, Frank Capra and Irving Thalberg.

“I admired Arthur Ripley and all these wonderful stories he told when he worked at MGM for Irving Thalberg. He told stories about running around with Thomas Wolfe. I was like a sponge soaking up all that stuff. I have more show business stories because I loved the business and the people and the craziness of it all.”

 

Lew and Pam B & W

Lew and Pamela

 

 

The start of it all

Hunter got on as a page at NBC and then worked in the mailroom, where he rose up the ranks to music licensing and promotion.

“I could see there was a ladder I could climb at NBC.”

He later worked in promotion at ABC and served stints at CBS and Disney, among other entertainment conglomerates, before eventually transforming himself into a producer-writer. He later rejoined NBC.

Then-NBC and MTM president Grant Tinker gave Hunter some sage advice about the vagaries of Hollywood when Hunter was torn between staying at NBC or taking an offer at ABC.

“He said, “For your benefit you need to know that in this business you’re not rewarded for loyalty. Quite to the contrary, we’ll probably be more interested in you if you go over to ABC, and so I did.”

And just as Tinker predicted, after making the move Hunter found himself more in demand than ever.

“In this business, if they want you, over hot coals and razor blades they will come get you. But if they don’t want you, nothing. I mean you’re either eating high on the hog or on the hoof of the hog.

“For one brief shining moment,” as the song goes, Hunter officed at four different studios, including Paramount.

He got schooled by (Aaron Spelling) and had run-ins with (Irwin Allen) some big-name producers.

Seeing so many different sides of the business, he learned the ins and ours of how shows and movies get developed, packaged, marketed.

“I was in promotions doing trailers for BonanzaDick Powell TheatreDinah Shore Chevy Show and so forth. I was around it all the time. A sound engineer and I went around to stars’ homes with a reel to reel tape machine to record them reading copy promoting their shows. Once, we went to the home of my idol, Fred Astaire. As he was reading into a microphone the copy I’d written for him I glanced through another room’s open doorway and I saw a pool table inside. When he was done I said, ‘Do you play pool, Fred?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, do you play pool?’ I said, Well, a little, and he said, ‘Oh-oh, I’m toast, c’mon, let’s go.’ I played a game of pool with Fred Astaire and he won and I let him win. I could not dream of beating my idol.

“I have lots of stories about John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant. It just goes on and on.”

Perhaps the star he got closest to was Judy Garland.

“She and I were very close on an emotional level. We had such a wonderful relationship. We never went to bed with each other but we sure flirted with each other a lot. I’m still in sorrow over what happened to her over the last few years of her life and how she died.”

He enjoyed getting to know the real personalities behind the personas.

 

 

The writer’s way

Doing promos was fine but he felt pulled to go where the action is – programming. He took endless meetings with writers, producers, agents. He gleaned what he could from those around him.

“I had doors open for me all the time I think because of my Neb. decency. I was just eager to absorb everything I could and I learned so much in those story conferences, going to dailies, watching rough cuts and observing artists working on the backlot.”

He was at ABC and then Disney (as a story executive) when the urge or, more accurately, the obligation to be a writer got the better of him.

“I had been for like four or five years telling writers how to write and never having made a living as a writer myself. It bothered me a lot because I really didn’t think I had the cachet. I mean, it’s very, very alarming to give notes to Paddy Chayefsky, who I idolized, or Neil Simon. I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury at the Disney commissary and I said, ‘I’ve read 2.000 scripts in the last two years and 90 percent of them are shit. I think I can be in the top 10 percent. He encouraged me to read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Dorthea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.

“I came home and told my then-wife I’ve gotten to the point where I want to try to be a writer myself. And she said fine.”

It was a leap of faith as the couple had young kids and a mortgage.

Hunter left his job to scratch this itch. He made a pact that if he didn’t make it in a year he’d find a job. Fifty-one weeks later none of the screenplays he wrote had sold. Tapped out and with a family to support, he took a job as a body sitter at Forest Lawn cemetery. The ghoulish work entails sitting up with corpses and laying them down if they rise up from rigor mortis. He’d done it at an uncle’s funeral home in Guide Rock and again to pay his way through college.

The day before he was to start Aaron Spelling called saying he wanted to buy Hunter’s script for what became If Tomorrow Comes. If it hadn’t sold at least Hunter knew he’d tried.

If Tomorrow Comes is the story of an ill-fated romance between a Caucasian girl and Japanese-American boy in the days before and after Pearl Harbor. The couple get separated when he and his family are ostracized after Japan’s attack on the U.S. and eventually imprisoned in an internment camp.

Even though Hunter grew up during the period when Japanese-Americans were interned he was, like the general public, oblivious to what happened. He only thought about the internment as the premise for a script when a relative recalled this infamy in less than sympathetic terms. That propelled Hunter to research the subject. He was appalled to discover that innocent Japanese-Americans were summarily stripped of property, businesses, livelihoods. Their kids taken out of schools, their lives disrupted. They were treated as criminals and traitors. All without due process. He was dismayed to find they were interned in camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

“I was shocked we incarcerated more than 120,000 citizens.”

He was shocked this injustice was not mentioned in textbooks. He was offended that many folks dimssed the incident as just part of the price of war. That it was merely a regrettable inconvenience when in fact it was a traumatic severing and breach of trust and civil rights.

In writing his script he found an emotional hook everyone could relate to by imagining a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet romance torn asunder by those harsh, unforgiving events. Patty Duke and Frank Michael Liu starred as the lovers whose lives are interrupted by history.

Anne Baxter, James Whitmore, Pat Hingle and Mako co-starred.

He considers the resulting 1971 movie made from his script among “the stuff that I’ve done that I’m most pleased with,” adding, “That was the thing that got me going. We got a 39 share. My phone was ringing off the hook. Then came another project and another one.”

Hunter resumed working for NBC and various studios in the 1970s and 1980s. As a general program executive at NBC he helped bring to the small screen two movies touching on social=political-moral issues in The Execution of Private Slovak and The Red Badge of Courage (both 1974). Later, as director of program development, he oversaw some major mini-series, including Centennial.

His next venture as a writer confronting social issues was Fallen Angel (1981), in which he tackled pedophilia long before the Catholic Church scandal broke. The idea for taking on the sensitive topic seemingly popped in his head during a meeting.

“I was pitching to Columbia executive Christine Foster when the phone rang. We heard, ‘This is Peter Frankovich here.’ He was an executive at CBS. Christine said, ‘I’ve got Lew Hunter.’ We all knew each other. I said, ‘Can I show you something, Peter?’ He asked, ‘You got anything hot?’ And I found myself saying, ‘Child pornography.’ It just came to me. And then, boom, he said, ‘You’ve got a deal.'”

Only Hunter didn’t have a story, much less a script. He was due to meet Frankovich the next week.

“I said to m self, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve gotta get a story together.” I went down to what was called the Abused Children’s Unit at LAPD. They told me everything they could tell me. I was in constant horror. They had me go down to the hall of records and look at the pedophile records.”

He learned how perpetrators groom their victims. In his script the perp is a photographer (Richard Masur) who befriends a fatherless girl (Dana Hill) and convinces her to pose nude. It bothered Hunter that kids could be manipulated or coerced to appear nude and perform sexual acts and that L.A. was the porn capital of the world.

It was only after Fallen Angel aired he remembered he had a childhood encounter with a pedophile.

“My mother thought she’d make a little bit of money by renting out a room to a Superior Knights semi-pro baseball player. He was a large man and he roomed right next to my room. One day he suggested we go out to the cornfield for a beer. We drove out there and parked. He said, ‘You’ve been really naughty to your mother.’ Of course, I had. I was a little ass-wise, That’s how I ended up at military academy. And then he put his hand on my thigh and said, ‘You know, you deserve to be spanked.’ I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on but I knew it was bad, so I disengaged myself, leaped out of the car and ran through the cornfield back home. I didn’t say anything to my mother. That man was back in his room that night and I spent  every night for the next month with a .22 rifle next to me when I went to bed. I was going to shoot him if he came in and tried something.”

Hunter says the man attempted to molest some of his buddies, too. While Hunter was away at military school he heard the authorities finally caught the predator. Several boys filed complaints against him.

Fallen Angel scored a record 43 share.

 

 

Fallen Angel Poster

 

Too close for comfort

A personal tragedy informed Hunter’s next controversial and much viewed project, Desperate Lives (1982).

“My best friend at the time said we should so a story together about our boys. Our sons were both deep into drugs. One of the people I talked to in researching this was my son, who said, ‘I can get drugs at my high school quicker than I can get lunch at the cafeteria.'”

Hunter made a decision to give the protagonist played by Doug McKeon the same name as his son, Scott, who didn’t appreciate it.

“it was a stupid thing because it really estranged us, I’m sure for the rest of our lives. He basically doesn’t talk to me, just superficially. That was a very negative thing in my life and something I deeply regret.”

About doing projects that meant something, even at a cost, he says, “I just started poking round through life and coming up with things that really energized me. That was the key for me.”

Fast forward a couple decades, to soon after Lew and Pamela moved to Superior, when the scourge of methamphetamine hit hard.

Concerned by its devastating effects on residents’ lives, he and Pamela formed a nonprofit to raise awareness of the dangers and of helping resources available.

“This bloody meth problem is a terrible problem,” he says. “It’s a rural holocaust.”

He got retired Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and other public figures, along with law enforcement officials, to appear at a town hall meeting. The Hunters mentored in Osborne’s Teammates program.

 

Lew with Tom Osborne

Lew and Tom Osborne

 

Lew says. “Boy, we really had a roll going. We certainly woke the town up to the fact we have a very serious problem and the reality is the problem still exists. I don’t think it’s going to subside.”

The nonprofit he launched has since been absorbed into a state Health and Human Services program.

Superior Express publisher Bill Blauvelt says the Hunters are a presence in that tiny community.

“Lew and Pam have been active on many fronts. When they take on a project it is a joint effort. You don’t get one with out the other. They have financially supported many community activities and encouraged programs.  Last summer they brought in a painter to work on their homes and then kept finding work so that he and his crew stayed the entire summer. They provided a house for the men to stay in.

“Their homes are always open. If we have important people coming to town and they need a place to stay, you can count on the Hunters to provide lodging. The colony program has brought lots of visitors to town, many of whom spend freely while here. And the colony has brought me friends.  Often I have been invited to attend their get acquainted picnics and late night parties.”

 

 

Desperate Lives Poster

 

Finding his niche as teacher and author

After If Tomorrow Comes and before Fallen Angel. Hunter began teaching at UCLA in 1979. From the start, he’s taught grad students.

“I love that. Undergraduates, they know too much – they haven’t been knocked around as the graduate students.”

He says teaching screenwriting while penning scripts himself proved fruitful.

“It was great. I’d be working on a script and I’d realize. ‘I can’t do this,” because I just told students they’re not supposed to have two people in a room agree with each other – one of my dictums.”

His classes became popular, especially 434. Each student starts with a synopsis and they’re guided step by step to create an outline, story points, and by the end of the class they have a first draft screenplay.

“Then somebody said, Why don’t you put your class on paper?’ I said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”

He says. “Other screenwriting books are ABOUT screenwriting but they don’t tell you HOW TO write a screenplay, they don’t give you the caveats you get on a professional level. Not only do I tell you how to write a screenplay I tell you how 80 to 90 percent of professionals write a screenplay.”

As more than one person in Once in a Lew Moon states, Hunter demystified the screenwriting process and made it accessible to everyone. Like the evangelist he is for screenwriting, he even spread the gospel doing workshops around the world in his aw-shucks style.

“From me, you don’t get this academic bullshit you get from other people who have only learned from a book or they’re failed screenwriters. They give misinformation. I would not have gone into professing had I not been successful. If you go to IMDB you’ll see it’s a pretty long list of stuff I’ve done – probably over a hundred hours of actually writing stuff and producing it. I’m really quite proud of that.”

Front Cover

 

He’s also proud he and his colleagues helped “professionalize” the screenwriting program at UCLA.

“We have more professionals professing.”

Since the program produces many grads who work in the industry, there’s a deep talent pool of writers who come back to teach. Their experience gives students is a taste for how things really work.

“We try to recreate what they’re going to face when they go out into the professional world with the meetings and note sessions before they actually write the screenplay and polish the screenplay.”

Soon into his teaching career he and a group of his students formed the Writers Block, a monthly social for writers. Newly divorced at the time, he offered to host it at his three-bedroom Burbank home.

This open house started small but grew like wildfire.

“The first one had about 20-25 people, then we got 40 and then 40 became 70 and 70 became…until eventually we got hundreds. People would come in and out over the evening. Professional writers dropped by because they liked the atmosphere. We socialized and bull-shitted.

I’ve always felt we writers socialize but we don’t party – it’s too frivolous. It was a wonderful thing.”

In the documentary, former students express gratitude for Hunter creating “a community” of writers. When Pamela entered Lew’s life she became part of the scene. Once Lew and Pamela adopt you, you not only have the keys to their heart but to their house, too.

The last Writers Block in ’99 was held off-site to accommodate the 1,000-plus attendees.

“We closed it down when we moved back to Nebraska,” he says. “Going back to the roots,” he calls that full circle relocation.

He and Pamela will be buried in the Guide Rock cemetery.

“We’ll be stacked,” he says. “The one that goes first will be on the bottom and the one after that will be on top. That’ll raise some gossip.”

 

Hunter, Senstock B & W

Lew and Lonnie Senstock

 

 

Once in a Lew Moon

The documentary about Lew is a passion project for director Lonnie Senstock, who regards the Hunters as surrogate parents.

“Well, he wanted to do something about me,” Lew recalls. “He came to the colony and shot a lot of footage. That was a decade ago. He’s been working on this sucker for 10 years. Very shortly on into the relationship he said, ‘I’d like you and Pamela to be my parents.’ His parents died within a ear of each other. We said sure and so he calls us papa and mama and we’re cool with that. He’s a really nice man.”

Senstock says the film could have gone a different direction when he and Lew experienced some difficulties in their lives. But, he adds, “I found myself celebrating something beautiful instead of something dark. I didn’t realize it was going to be that way until Lew and I talked about the celebration of writing. We realized it was bigger than him. We really wanted it to celebrate that life that so seldom is given kudos.”

Hunter appreciates that focus, “Everybody in it is talking about  screenwriting. I like that.” He likes, too, how it overturns the idea that    somehow actors and directors just make up movies as they go along.

“There are men and women who write these things.”

Meanwhile, this old lion of cinema, now battling illness, is readying his next book, Lew Hunter’s Naked Screewriting: 25 Academy Award-winning Screenwriters Bare their Art, Craft, Soul and Secrets.

Whatever’s happening with him, he still makes time for past-present students. He’s frequently sought out to consult on scripts and projects. He makes himself available 24-7.

“I’ve always thought being accessible was the right thing to do.”

Besides, he says, “I identify so much with people who are dreamers.”

Once in a Lew Moon screens Sunday, March 12 at 3:45 p.m. at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha.

Follow Lew’s adventures at http://www.lewhunter.com.

 

 

 

Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows; Screenwriter John Kaye scripted ‘American Hot Wax’ and more

January 30, 2016 Leave a comment

You never who you might meet in your hometown.  Veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye has lived under the radar in Omaha since late 2014 working on a new novel but he’s coming out of the shadows for a celebration of one of the movies he wrote, “American Hot Wax” (1978).  It’s the story of rock ‘n’ roll’s crossover from fringe race music to mainstream popularity courtesy DJ Alan Freed.  Kaye’s appearing at a Feb. 7 Film Stream screening.  Here is my short profile of Kaye in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

John Kaye

 

 

Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows

Screenwriter John Kaye scripted ‘American Hot Wax’ and more

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha is the adopted home of veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye, 74, whose memoirs are published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The mercurial Kaye came 17-months ago from northern California to work on a new novel (his third) and immerse himself “deep” in a fictional Omaha subplot.

“I wanted to take a risk with what I was doing. The best decision I made,” he said from his writing-reading perch at Wohlner’s in Mid-town.

It’s not the first time he’s used Omaha as workplace and muse. In the early 1990s he researched here for an Omaha character in his first novel. Decades earlier he passed through hitching cross country on a personal Beat adventure. That drop-out, tune-in odyssey led him to Jamaica until Uncle Sam called.

On Feb. 7 Film Streams will present a 1978 film he wrote, American Hot Wax, that tells the story of DJ Alan Freed, who introduced white audiences to rock ‘n’ roll. Until now Kaye’s kept a low profile here, but that changes when he does a Q&A after the 7 p.m. show.

Kaye grew up in a West Los Angeles malaise of stale Hollywood dreams. He entered the ferment of 1960s social rebellion as a UC Berkeley and University of Wisconsin (Madison) student. He served in the Marine Corps Reserves, where his Jewish, college-educated background made him a target.

This child of Old Hollywood and New Journalism, “inspired by the galvanizing youth culture thing,” indulged in the era’s excesses. He was a researcher for David Wolper Productions, where colleagues included William Friedkin and Walon Green. He was an underground journalist, a CBS censor and a producer-writer for the KNBC late night sketch comedy show Lohman and Barkley. Anticipating Saturday Night Live, the show sped the careers of Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson and John Amos.

“It was a fascinating moment.”

 

American Hot Wax

 

 

Then Kaye got fired. Hedging that “disappointment” was the mentoring he received from Mission Impossible and Mannix creator Bruce Geller. Then Geller died in a plane crash.

Kaye’s ex-wife and first love was institutionalized, leaving him to raise their son. She later committed suicide.

“It was a very chaotic time,” he recalls.

All the while he wrote scripts but sold none.

“I was really struggling.”

One day he picked up two young women thumbing rides in L.A. He ditched them after realizing they were Manson girls – post-Charlie’s conviction. The incident sparked the idea for his first industry feature, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975). This nihilistic screwball comedy is a shambling, anarchic take on three broken people hooking up for a road and head trip. Sally Kellerman and Mackenzie Phillips teamed with Alan Arkin. Dick Richards directed.

“It was a time when you could write a road movie,” Kaye says of its meandering, seriocomic style. The approach became his niche and hit its peak with Hot Wax. His friend Floyd Mutrux directed. Tim McIntyre, Fran Drescher, Jay Leno, Laraine Newman, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis star.

 

RAFFERTY AND THE GOLD DUST TWINS, US lobbycard, from left: Sally Kellerman, Alan Arkin, Mackenzie Phillips, 1975 - Stock Image

 

 

Kaye’s own counterculture leanings drew him to Gonzo hipster Hunter S. Thompson, whom he made the basis for his Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) script. Bill Murray plays Thompson. Kaye’s then-producing partner Art Linson directed. The serious take Kaye envisioned was hijacked by “a make it funny” decree from studio suits. Hanging out with Thompson in New Orleans, an old Kaye stomping ground, while placating moneymen hell-bent on laughs “turned out to be fun but really insane,” said Kaye.

Unkind reviews “singled out” Kaye’s writing. “It was a blood letting. Very painful.”

The experience, he said, gave him “thick skin” and taught him “not to be too invested in something.” Still he said, “It definitely set my career back.” He takes small consolation the movie has a cult following, even admitting, “I’m not sure it holds up as well as Hot Wax.”

 

 

 

Cover Photo

 

 

Kaye’s last screen credit came as writer-director of Forever Lulu, a 2000 film starring Melanie Griffith and Patrick Swayze.

“I decided I wanted to write sort of a valentine to my ex-wife.”

The lead characters have a college affair and years later she escapes a mental hospital to find her old beau, now married, to inform him he fathered a child she bore and was forced to give up for adoption. The pair set out to visit the son who doesn’t know they exist.

A negative trade review cost the film a theatrical release.

The producers, he said, “kind of left me alone,” adding, “It was a great experience for me because I really felt I had stepped out and done something.”

It’s the same feeling he had writing his first novel, Stars Screaming.

“Spending eight years writing this book and getting it done, I realized I would not quit on something and that I had it in me to write it. Even though I wrote myself into complete poverty doing it, I finished it. I stepped through enormous amounts of fear to work to my potential.”

Then came his second novel The Dead Circus. Even with his new novel nearly complete, he says he may linger on in Omaha awhile.

“I’ve fallen in love with this town.”

For tickets to the Feb. 7 screening, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

 

where-the-buffalo-roam

Omaha native goes where his film passion leads him: James Duff and filmmaker wife Julia Morrison shot debut feature ‘Hank and Asha’ on two continents

October 18, 2014 1 comment

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

Couple’s film played to hometown crowd in Omaha                                                                                                                                                                                                             Omaha native James E. Duff goes to extreme lengths feeding his film passion. He once went across the country by scooter to make a documentary. He’s directed films and taught filmmaking in Africa and Europe. His latest travels resulted in his debut narrative feature, Hank and Asha, a micro indie flick he co-wrote with his wife, Julia Morrison.

He directed and she produced the picture shot in the Czech Republic and on the Lower East Side of New York City, where the couple reside.

The film’s been well received at art houses and festivals, winning audience favorite awards. It’s now available on DVD,

Duff’s cinema journey wend its way here in May when he and Julia presented their movie at Film Streams. The Omaha premiere played to a warm, enthusiastic crowd, including his folks. It marked a special homecoming for Duff, who’s followed a long road pursuing his art.

“It was fantastic. I have such a home team here. Omaha supports their own. It’s a really special feeling to see friends and family in the theater,” he says, adding the celebratory turnout “felt like a wedding.”

It was a full circle moment for the filmmaker, whose love of cinema was stoked watching classic movies with his father, Dr. Wally Duff, as a child and habituating the Dundee Theater as a teen.

The filmmaker joins a select group of Nebraskans (Joan Micklin Silver, Dan Mirvish, Alexander Payne) who’ve directed widely seen features.

 

 

Wanderlust
This prodigal son spent 20 years honing his craft in far-flung places: Indiana University; the USC School of Cinematic Arts (his thesis film Life is a Sweet played festivals worldwide); New York City, plus those directing and teaching adventures oceans away.

As a kid he collected stamps from foreign countries and now he’s made it to some of the same spots he imagined visiting.

“I’ve always kind of had a wanderlust. When I was 5 and I first knew what a globe was I looked at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and declared, ‘I’m going to go there.’ At 19 I studied my junior year abroad and actually backpacked down into the Cape.”

Following his intrepid spirit he captured a 1994 coast-to-coast bicycle trek from the back of a scooter. Feeling his Generation X was unfairly stereotyped as slackers he joined fellow recent college graduates for the fundraising bike trip from California to North Carolina to document “people’s opinions about our generation.”

“We cut right across middle America, biking 80-90 miles a day, staying in these really small towns. We spent some nights at campsites. Churches and families put us up other nights.”

He did the 35-days on a Honda Elite. His roommate, who’d never operated a scooter, drove with Duff on the back holding the camera.

By journey’s end the scooter was beat up after several wipeouts. “When we’d go down it’d be like slow motion because all I was thinking about was the camera. I was 21 and I didn’t think I could get killed.” The fragile Ricoh Hi-8 camera was another matter. “A couple times it broke and I thought the trip was over, but I found this amazing repair shop in a little town that fixed it.”

The trek complete, Duff found himself in unfamiliar territory with no place to edit. Then he got a grant from a film support group and permission to use a corporate editing suite in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle Park.

“I had 75 hours (of footage) to get down to one.”

Working under severe time constraints he endured panic attacks and exhaustion, often laboring through the night.

“I’d go there and lock myself in with a peanut butter sandwich.”

When he previewed the film for backers, he says, “I couldn’t watch it, but they really liked it. They put on a big screening for the community.” Much to his surprise the film, The Cycle Also Rises, sold to PBS and aired nationwide on the POV series. It confirmed for the Westside High grad his boyhood fascination with film could become a career.

Africa
Though documentaries became his forte, he longed to make dramatic films. He tested the waters in L.A. “I wrote a couple scripts that were close to getting made but I got frustrated not working as a director.” He relocated to New York to direct theater. When an opportunity arose to go back to Africa, this time to make development documentaries in Senegal for nongovernmental organizations, he took it.

“The work was very West Africa. You’d show up on time and nobody else would come for another hour. Then the equipment wouldn’t work. Constant frustration. But when we’d show up to these little villages people would welcome us so warmly. They’re beautiful, kind people.”

His docs covered such topics as HIV prevention and circumcision. He independently made a film about Senegal’s lost 20-something generation. He cherishes his two years there.

“It was a really fantastic experience. The food and music is amazing. There’s a lot of artists with a lot to say. My memories are not so much of the work but of these most intense friendships.””

In 2007 he went back to another old stomping ground, Kenya, for a UNESCO project working with aspiring filmmakers.

“I’ve never taught students so passionate. They all wanted so badly to do this. I found it so inspiring to teach them just simple things. ”

In 2010 he went to a refugee camp in the Sahara to teach filmmaking to the displaced and oppressed Saharawian people.

“The camp had no electricity or running water. They’d put up a screen in the bed of a truck and project movies. That was their film festival. They also had a ‘film school’ where I taught. We were training the people to make films so that the world could know their plight. Some students did make films but they’re not getting out.”

From Prague to New York with love
Duff then taught at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. Julia joined him on the faculty. Their students were an international lot. Just as in Africa, Duff learned how film cuts across all barriers.

“The gift of cinema is universal,” he says. “To put that tool in people’s hands is so empowering. Giving them a camera is such a potent thing.”

In 2011-12 the couple enlisted some of their students as crew for Hank and Asha, a story about two aspiring filmmakers, Hank in New York and Asha in Prague, whose relationship plays out entirely by video letters. Inspiration came from the disconnection Duff, Morrison and their students felt far from home and from a friend who courted his wife via video love letters. Watching the friend’s videos, Duff says, “felt like we were on the inside of this relationship watching it grow.” That intimate glimpse at budding romance and the anticipation that attends it, is what the filmmakers were after in their own project.

To their delight, Duff and Morrison found they make an effective team.

“It’s really worked out well in our partnership because we have two different skill sets,” Duff says. “Julia came from producing and is a killer producer and I come from a directing background and that’s kind of how we blended together. I think that helps in the partnership because we’re not looking over each other’s shoulder.”

“We’ve had a great experience doing this together as our first film collaboration as a couple,” says Morrison, who’s produced historical documentaries for the PBS series American Experience and current affairs docs for New York Time Television. “We’ve learned a lot and we’ve gone on this great adventure. We’ve traveled the country and the world with the film. All these things have been terrific. But it’s also really hard work to make a movie.”

And to get it seen. They feel fortunate the Hank and Asha found both theatrical and video distributors.

Film streams
For as low budget as the all-digital movie is, the filmmakers are proud of how good it looks. Duff credits cinematographer Bianca Butti for that. Because it’s a two-character piece, it needed actors who could carry the film and reviewers credit Andrew Pastides as Hank and Mahira Kakkar as Asha with engaging performances. His letters were shot in New York and hers in Prague. The actors never met. The filmmakers say for the storyline’s high concept conceit to work the videos had to be as natural as possible. Therefore, no rehearsals were held and the actors improvised from an outline highlighting the arc of each scene. Some found locations were utilized and some shots were stolen.

Duff and Morrison enjoyed great freedom on the project.

“We were blessed to have that. Nobody told us what to do,” he says.

“We’re looking forward to the next project having a larger budget but still retaining our autonomy,” says Morrison.

They hope a new script they’re developing attracts name actors.

The couple say whatever films they make will reflect their shared interest in humanist stories that move audiences.

Meanwhile, they’re always up for a new far-off adventure.

As Duff explains, “We’re on the lookout for opportunities like that because we want to continue to expand our world. It informs everything we do. We’ll go anywhere.”

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